Australia – South Africa Test Series: Wasn’t it a humdinger ? When the statisticians mentioned , before the series, that S.Africa could take over the No. 1 spot by beating Australia 3-0, I thought it was a foolish speculation and an impossibility. Guess what ? South Africa came awful close. Had it not been for the injury to Graeme Smith in the 3rd Test, who knows what might have happened ? The test would have at least been a draw and S. Africa would have been very close to the top.
Regardless of who won or lost, the series provided exciting cricket with pulsating changes of fortune in both the first two tests. At Perth, when the Springboks , replying to Australia’s respectable 375, collapsed for 281 after having been 233 for 3 , I thought to myself ” It’s the same old S. Africa.” It was marvelous to see the ease with which they scored 414 / 4 in their second innings ,on the back of centuries from Smith and DeVilliers, to hand the Aussies their first defeat.
At Melbourne the script was a little different but equally amazing. Chasing the Aussies 394, the Proteas were 184/7 and then 251/8 before Duminy and Steyn put on 180 for the 9th wicket and gave them a modest first innings lead. They then proceeded to dismiss the Aussies for 247 ,knock off the required 182 runs and snatch a 9-wicket victory.
Only in the 3rd Test at Sidney did the Aussies show signs of their old time dominance though their victory was due mostly to Graeme Smith’s injury. Perhaps also, the Proteas relaxed a little having already locked up the series .Whatever the result , it pales into insignificance compared to the courage shown by Graeme Smith in playing with a broken finger and almost salvaging a draw. It would have been a fairy tale ending if he had been able to hold on for just 10 balls more but he was gallant in defeat. A gutsy, gutsy performance and he well deserved the Man of the Series award.
Post Series Thoughts: Australia may have retained their No. 1 ranking but there is little doubt that South Africa were the best team for calendar 2008. Their decisive series win over Australa, in Australia, coupled with the Aussies dismal showing in India leave no doubt as to who is No. 1 on current form. They possess the most incisive pace attack in the world , have a nice blend of youth and experience and an inspirational captain in Graeme Smith. The batting ( with Smith , Amla, DeVilliers, Kallis , Boucher and Co.) is formidable and they are a team on the up and up. In contrast, the Aussies are reeling from a spate of retirements and injuries. The batting is still solid ( with Katich, Ponting, Clarke, Hussey et al) and Brad Haddin has proved a capable wicketkeeper-batsman even if he will not make any one forget Adam Gilchrist. It is the bowling that is the weakpoint as it just does not look capable of getting 20 wickets in a test. Whether because of his off-field issues ( a nasty divorce) or other things Brett Lee was ineffective before dropping out due to injury ; Mitchell Johnson was the lone bright spot. Peter Siddle was impressive but it is too early to say that he and Doug bollinger are the answer.No one can replace Shane Warne but Kreija and Cameron White are not Test class and Hauritz has still to prove himself. The biggest questionmark is Andrew Symonds who , at his best, was a world class allrounder. I really doubt that he will be able to make it back and , if that is the case, it leaves a big hole in the Aussie middle order.Phil Jacques, Stuart Clark and Shane Watson should help when they return from injury but will they be enough ? I doubt it .
The Aussie dominance was based on bringing in fresh blood even when existing players still had some cricket left in them. Steve Waugh and Ian Healy, to name only two, were unceremoniously dropped and Damien Martyn retired on his own as did Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. Ian Healy’s case was a classic. He had wanted to play a farewell Test at the Gabba but the Aussie chief of selectors nixed the idea telling him that he ( Healy) had already played in three more tests than he deserved !
For whatever reason, the Aussie selectors have departed from their ruthless policy in recent years and as a result not only have some players ( Matthew Hayden is one ) hung on too long but their putative replacements are also long in the tooth. It does not bode well for the future as both their leading challengers, S.Africa and India, are younger and have developed useful bench strength.
The ODI series between the two teams should be a cracker and I await it eagerly. Too bad Graeme Smith will have to sit it out.
The IPL is a poison that has affected Australian cricket opines the Sydney Morning Herald and it is difficult to argue against it. The large contracts on offer have made their top cricketers a little less hungry and the shorter format has eroded some of the skills required for the Test game. Indeed, the IPL money has affected all foreign cricketers , not just the Aussies. Only India has benefitted as the IPL has provided undreamt of opportunities for lots of youngsters and created an unsurpassed pool of talent.
Until the emergence of the IPL, the ultimate ambition / goal of cricketers was to represent their country. Now we are seeing cricket going the way of professional sports like NBA basketball as pecuniary considerations cause club affiliations to become more important than national loyalties. Unfortunate perhaps but unavoidable.
The post of captain has always been the most difficult one to fill. Not only must the captain be a shrewd field tactician and a master motivator, he also has to pull his weight as a player. In addition, the cares of captaincy must not affect his performance as a player. To make matters even more difficult, the three forms of thee game require widely differing skill sets.It is the rare individual who possesses all the necessary attributes. A great player does not always make a good captain . Tendulkar ,Lara and Pietersen are just a few examples. Ganguly had other problems , captaincy affecting his batting prowess. Dravid just didn’t have the personality of a captain though he was a very decent sort and tried hard.Dhoni and Graeme Smith are the only two who completely fit the bill. I don’t think that the Indian public or sports pundits realize how lucky we are to have Dhoni as a captain. He is a smart , aggressive leader and a great motivator who happens also to have a knack for making the right move. It is only recently that he has shown a tendency to be over cautious , playing to draw and win the series 1-0 rather than going for the jugular every time. Perhaps it is the reality of having to deal with the Indian cricketing public which expects to win every series , preferably in lopsided fashion and treats a loss as a major calamity.
Speaking of captaincy, the English find themselves in a real mess. When Kevin Pietersen was first appointed , 60% of English newspaper readers polled gave him a thumbs up. Now, less than a year later, he’s been sacked . I’m not particularly surprised. I always thought that he didn’t have the temperament, the smarts needed to be a good captain.A terrific batsman , but an instinctive rather than a cerebral player. Strauss should have been selected last year rather than Pietersen and I think he will do better than KP. At least, he will not be saddled with Peter Moores who was a disaster as manager.
” Form is temporary but class is permanent“ has got to be the most overused cricket cliche that there is. If I hear it once more, I will scream. It was used to explain Saurav Ganguly’s lean patch , and now it is being trotted out for Rahul Dravid. Inspite of his recent century against England, Dravid is a shadow of his former self and deserves to be shown the door. Same goes for Matthew Hayden of Australia.I’m going to coin a new cliche. Form is temporary, but an extended loss of form is permanent. Once confidence goes, it almost never comes back.